Sports

Which Disastrous Superstar Would You Trust Your NBA Team With?

Breaking down the burgeoning subgenre of expensive guards whom no one actually wants.

Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Ben Simmons, and Russell Westbrook.
The four horsemen of basketball apocalypse. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Elsa/Getty Images, Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images, and Patrick Smith/Getty Images.

The NBA Conference Finals are now set, with a final four that includes the Miami Heat squaring off against the Boston Celtics in the East, and the Golden State Warriors going against the Dallas Mavericks out West. One team that will not be there are the Phoenix Suns, who got obliterated by the Mavs on their home court in a Game 7 on Sunday, the latest disappointment in the hexed playoff career of Point God Chris Paul. Paul is not exactly a universally beloved figure in NBA circles, and in the aftermath of the loss there was no shortage of gloating at his defeat, with one longtime antagonist going on television to argue that Paul should have been benched and a prominent Twitter account advocating that the Suns trade Paul for the now-disastrous L.A. Lakers guard Russell Westbrook.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

To which I say: Let’s not get crazy here. As far as distressed assets go, Paul—who recently shot 14-for-14 in a first-round closeout game and is on a relatively team-friendly contract—is not on the same level as Westbrook; in fact, he’s not even in the upper echelon of distressed (and distressing) NBA guards who were eliminated from the playoffs in the past week. Another team notably missing from the Conference Finals are the Philadelphia 76ers, who last Thursday turned in a moribund performance in a Game 6 home loss against Miami, the fourth time in five years that the team has been bounced out of the second round.

I recapped the general state of Sixers misery earlier in these playoffs so won’t belabor it here, other than to note that the team now faces the league’s most unenviable dilemmas heading into this NBA offseason: what to do with alleged superstar guard James Harden, whose acquisition mere months ago was heralded as the crown jewel of Daryl Morey’s tenure running the team. Harden submitted a listless performance in Games 5 and 6 of the series, shooting a combined 9-for-24 with 8 turnovers and only attempting two shots in the second half of Game 6. It was a showing so pedestrian and detached that it prompted center Joel Embiid to publicly remark that Harden is not the player the team expected him to be when they traded for him. This isn’t exactly what you want to hear your franchise cornerstone say about a guy you recently obtained at great expense to allegedly help him win a championship.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Harden is an exemplar of what seems to be a burgeoning subgenre of NBA player: the highly compensated star guard whom no one is certain they actually want on their team. Shockingly the Brooklyn Nets have two of these players in Ben Simmons (whom the Sixers traded for Harden back in February) and Kyrie Irving, and the Lakers have another in Westbrook. Between them these four men have 29 All-Star appearances, 2 MVP trophies, and ungodly amounts of money. Below is an unscientific taxonomy of these players, ranked on a scale of one to five alarms in terms of the potential dumpster-fire threat that they pose to your team.

Ben Simmons

At only 25 years old, Simmons probably has the most upside of anyone on this list. When he is playing, he is a top-shelf defender and an absolute menace in a transition offense, but the key phrase there is “when he is playing.” Simmons sat out the entirety of this past season after what can only be described as a Richie Tenenbaum–style meltdown in last year’s playoffs in which Simmons essentially decided to stop shooting the basketball, a fairly crucial part of the sport, even for a guy whose specialties are defense and passing. Prior to that, Simmons had made three All-Star teams and was considered one of the most promising young players in the game. If you have Ben Simmons on your team there’s a decent chance you have a cornerstone player for years to come, but there’s also an at least semi-decent chance he simply never plays basketball again. And, oh yeah, you’ll also be paying him upward of $100 million over the next three seasons. 3 alarms.

James Harden

If Harden doesn’t pick up his option going into the offseason he is officially a free agent, and exactly what sort of payday the Sixers (or anyone else) are willing to stomach is the question on everyone’s mind. Harden was the league’s MVP a mere four years ago; since then he has pouted his way out of both Houston and Brooklyn, and seems unlikely to ever return to the form that once made him arguably the greatest offensive player of his generation. (Just ask his teammate!) The plus side of the occasionally plus-sized Harden is that, unlike Simmons and Irving, you can usually count on him to actually play, and he’s such an intelligent player that it’s easy to imagine a situation in which he just transitions into a savvy, playmaking point guard while no longer being a consistent 30-point-per-game scorer. The downside is that he’s frequently out of shape, disappears in playoff games, and now has a reputation as a serial malcontent. Do you want your team to give James Harden an expensive long-term contract? Reader, you do not. 3.5 alarms.

Kyrie Irving

Irving is a player whose game is famously admired by his peers, which has historically made his general toxicity somewhat underrated. He has earned a reputation as an insufferable asshole everywhere that he has played: He demanded a trade away from the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James, scorning a team that had made three straight Finals runs to join the rival Boston Celtics. As a fan of said Celtics, I can say that it has taken the team three full seasons to rid itself of Irving’s disastrous vibes from his lone healthy year there. By all accounts the reason James Harden forced a trade from the Nets is that he was sick of dealing with Irving’s bullshit, and Harden spent three years playing with Dwight Howard. Irving is a breathtakingly gifted player who only sometimes shows up to play, literally and figuratively: So much has been made about his medical issues (of both the injury-prone and self-inflicted variety) and his penchant for unsanctioned sabbaticals that it often goes undernoticed how inconsistent his basic effort level is. It’s getting hard to argue that the good outweighs the bad with this guy, and now I’m getting angry just writing about him. He’s also eligible for a contract extension, so best of luck there. 4 alarms.

Russell Westbrook

On the positive side … yikes. His contract is up in a year? He seems like a good father? For those of us who remember what he was like at the height of his powers, the Westbrook plight is a truly depressing one. He just played on his fourth team in four years, the latest being a miserable Lakers squad that was relentlessly hurling him under the bus by season’s end. His game doesn’t seem to be in decline so much as in abject deterioration; it would not surprise me if Russell Westbrook does not get another NBA contract once his current one is over. He is constitutionally incapable of not playing hard and tends to be well-liked by teammates, which is at least enough to make him the most sympathetic player on this list. He will also make $47 million next year and demonstrably makes your basketball team worse; sympathy only gets you so far. 4.5 alarms.

Bonus entrant: John Wall

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

One of the more delightful storylines of this playoffs has been the resurgence of Al Horford, who at 35 years old has been playing some of the best basketball of his life for the Celtics. Last season Horford was essentially exiled to Oklahoma City, where he was benched after only 28 games because his team was trying to lose. Many have since speculated that Horford’s paid OKC vacation was crucial to his rejuvenation campaign in Boston. Which brings us to Wall, who this past season was paid $44 million by the Houston Rockets to not play basketball. (Like Westbrook, Wall is scheduled to make $47 million next year.) Wall was once an excellent player who, unlike some of the other names on this list, has a reputation as being a genuinely good guy and a solid locker room presence. Someone should let John Wall play basketball! Especially if he’s willing to revisit the last year of that contract. (I personally would be unwilling to revisit the prospect of someone giving me $47 million to do nothing, but that’s just me.) 2 alarms.

Advertisement